Athens, Greece 2004. It is the summer Olympics games. Athletes from all over the world were competing against one another trying to be the top athlete in their sport. And in the light heavyweight division in the sport of boxing, Andre “S.O.G.” Ward shined at the top and brought home the Gold Medal. Now, a professional and 21 bouts later with all 21 coming in victories (13 of them by way of KO), Ward adds the WBA Super Middleweight Championship Belt to his collection with a very exciting victory over the skillful Mikkel Kessler of Denmark. As he’s getting ready to jump into camp to prepare for stage 2 of the Super Six World Boxing Classic tournament aired on Showtime, I had a chance to sit down and interview the champ about his accomplishments and his future in boxing. As a writer who is also a huge fan, you can understand my excitement and nervousness on meeting the champion boxer. As my trainer, Edge Brown assists me with the interview, we meet someone who is more than just a fighter. We met a person who is very passionate about the sport of boxing, a man of faith, and someone who uses his success in a positive way to help others. Here’s how it went.
When you won the Olympic Gold, you put yourself in a different class with the likes of Muhammad Ali, “Sugar” Ray Leonard, and Oscar De La Hoya. People are expecting you to carry the sport like those 3 greats. How do you feel about that?
Winning the Gold Medal is an unbelievable feat and it puts me in the history books for life. There is a great tradition that Olympic Gold medalists go on and become world champions. And I have accomplished that. I want to make an impact on the sport of boxing. My goal is be one of the greatest fighters to lace a pair of gloves.
Now as a professional, you’re a very focused, well grounded, and spiritual guy. But you and your team were under a lot of pressure and criticism early in your career about the opponents you were facing, then you came through with your win over Kessler and now people are saying you’re on the right track. How did you and your team handle the pressure and criticisms?
There’s always pressure. There’s pressure when you’re on top. There’s pressure when you’re trying to get to the top. But the particular type of pressure that I take with the criticism, I use it as motivation. I believe you have to let it affect you at a certain degree and not in a negative way, but in a positive influence as motivation to prove the critics wrong. Nothing personal against anybody, but I want to show the world I am going to be a world champion, and a great one. The great Bernard Hopkins said and I’m paraphrasing “You need critics. You don’t want them. It doesn’t feel good to have them, but you need people to doubt you to keep that fire burning.” You need a reason to fight, and that is my reason.
The Super 6 World Boxing Classic tournament is pitting the top 6 super middleweight fighters in the world to compete against one another to be crowned as the best super middleweight fighter. How does it feel to be chosen as one of the fighters to compete in this tournament?
Being in the Super 6 is a great feeling. There are a lot of other good super middleweights that could’ve been in there, so being that they picked me is just a great feeling. I was honored, and I wanted to step up to the plate and say ok these guys on Showtime feel like I’m worthy to be in this tournament, so I’m going to prove that I’m worthy. It’s just an honorable feeling and I’m thankful! There’s also Fight Camp 360 where it follows the fighters behind the scene, and it’s just a great concept and I’m very appreciative.
Speaking of Fight Camp 360, I watched the latest episode of it. And right before you walked into the ring with your fight against Mikkel Kessler, you received a phone call from Floyd Mayweather Jr. giving you positive words as you’re getting to walk to the ring. What was that like?
Oh man that was unbelievable. Floyd Mayweather Jr., Roy Jones Jr., and Bernard Hopkins I must say are my three favorite fighters. But to get a phone call from Floyd Mayweather who in my opinion is the best fighter in the world, right before the biggest moment of your life in your career is just unbelievable and the words that he gave me were so encouraging. It tells me that this guy believes in me, and I know I can do this.
Going into the Kessler fight for the Super 6 tournament, you were looked at as the underdog. People said you were facing a more experienced fighter (Andre jumps in “and he was”). Critics were not sure you were ready to face Kessler and win. But you did. And you did it well. How do you feel now as far as fighting after the Super 6 tournament?
It’s hard to look past the Super 6 tournament, especially with so many big fights within the tournament. I just want to take them down one by one. I want to focus on the goal right in front of you. I feel if guys look too far ahead, they get sidetracked. I am locked in on my next opponent Allen Green and I just want to win. I work really hard. Even though I just beat a guy like Kessler, I still have a lot of work. My goal is to be the best and to top each performance every time out.
In the Super 6 tournament, many said you were a big underdog, then you beat Kessler, and now people are saying you’re the favorite to win to the tournament. How do you feel about that?
It’s interesting because some people still don’t see me as the favorite. Someone mentioned that they weren’t convinced after my victory over Kessler. They said they will be convinced when I beat a “real” fighter like Arthur Abraham. Again, the critics will not stop. So I’m looking at that like Ok, I still have some work to do.
With the growing popularity of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), do you feel the sport of boxing has been affected. And how do you feel about Mixed Martial Arts?
MMA is a tough tough sport. I’ve trained with guys like Nick Diaz, Nate Diaz, and Jake Shields. Jake’s a great and humble guy. I’m a fan of the sport. It’s an artful sport. It’s a tough brutal sport. These guys have to learn 2 or 3 different things in order to be successful. There’s the ground game like Jiu Jitsu and stand up. I’m a fan of it and I respect it. I don’t look at it like Boxing vs. MMA. I think there’s place for boxing and there’s a place for MMA, and I respect the both of them highly.
Many fighters have tough rugged crazy nicknames. Bernard Hopkins is “The Executioner”. But yours is S.O.G. Could you tell me about your nickname?
S.O.G. is Son of God. A lot people come up to me and say “so you’re the son of God? You’re the savior?” Absolutely not. But I go by a scripture Galatians 3:26 which says “through the faith of Jesus Christ, you are all sons of God” and to me that means if you’re willing to release your faith in Jesus Christ you too can become a son of God. I am a Christian and I think the name fits. I think it’s something that’s natural and I really like it! I really like the name. I think a lot of people do like it. Some don’t. But a lot of people do.
Outside of boxing, you help out with a lot of positive influential organizations. For example you teamed up with knockoutdogfighting.org which reaches out to prevent dog fighting. Could you tell me a little about that?
The knockoutdogfighting.org organization was started by a person named Chris who is very passionate about dogs, especially pit bulls because they get mistreated a lot. She says these dogs are very passionate and very loyal dogs. They’re here for more than just dog fighting. And as I got connected with knockoutdogfighting.org, I did some research and realized that dog fighting isn’t just the issue. It’s been proven when there’s dog abuse within a home, there’s child abuse, spousal abuse, and even elderly abuse. And guys end up committing worse crimes. That’s one reason why I teamed up with her, because I am able to get into juvenile halls and I’m able to connect with people about that subject as well as many other things. I want to use my platform to reach to as many people in as many areas as I can in non profit organizations.
You have so much going on in your life inside and outside of the ring. If you never got into boxing and laced up a pair of gloves, what do you see yourself doing?
Wow…..that’s a good question. Well my desire after boxing, and I believe I am able to do that even now is preach the gospel. I was able to go to Dublin High School and speak to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and it was such a powerful moment. I feel like the word of God and the power of God can affect people’s lives. I love sharing the good news with people. But if not that, I would see myself in business because I love crunching numbers, I love talking about business, and just seeing how business works. I would love to see myself in a suit everyday and going to do some good business somewhere (chuckles).
What are your plans after boxing?
My desire is definitely to be more involved with ministry, more than I am now. I’m excited to see. I am looking forward to life after boxing. I’ll be 26 on February 23 and I’m giving myself a window around 30-32 where I want to be done with the sport. I’m not going to do this forever. And I admire someone like Bernard Hopkins for going on as long as he has, but I just can’t see myself personally boxing until I’m 40. So I’m excited to see [where life will take me].
You’re very liked and admired here in the Bay Area, but you’re also a worldwide star from Europe to Asia. How do you feel about that?
It’s very humbling. There’s a scripture that says “to whom is much is given, much is required”. And since my fight with Kessler, this is the busiest I’ve been my whole life. And I’m very thankful. But I’m also learning to handle the responsibility that comes with it. Maintaining my consistency with God, maintaining my family and making sure everybody is getting what they need, the business aspect of it, and as well as the physical part of it. Making sure I’m fit to fight at my best! It’s a lot, but this is what I signed up for.
You being a father and family man, what if one of your kids came up to you and said they wanted to box? What are your feelings about that?
(Laughs) It would be mixed. I get this question a lot and it’s a good question. I’m just trying to use wisdom with them. I’m trying to watch them. We have a lot of stuff going on in sports with the kids. But we just want to introduce sports to them. And whatever they choose, they choose. If they wanted to box, I don’t want to say I would discourage it, but they would have to prove to me they were serious and that they really wanted to do it. In any combat sports, it’s very serious. Just because dad is doing this, doesn’t mean you would have to go through it. So I would have to see something that caught my eye that would motivate me to want to get them involved in the sport. We just have to wait and see. But the funny thing that I tell my wife is, if anybody’s going to box, I see my daughter boxing. She’s got this look about her. They call it the “Ward Scowl”. I see her being the one coming up to me saying “dad let me box”. (Laughing) We’ll see.
Through the history of boxing going as far back as Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, “Sugar” Ray Robinson, Ali, “Sugar” Ray Leonard, all the way to current boxers, who is your all time favorite boxer?
Wow….there’s so many good ones. If I had to pick one, I would have to pick Muhammad Ali. I say Ali obviously because of what he did in the ring, but also how he did it. And in the time he did it in with the charisma he showed in the 50’s and 60’s was just unheard of. He was a one-man-band. He was able to captivate the audience, the media, and then go in there and do what he said he was going to do. There will never be another Muhammad Ali. So it would have to be Ali.
When you started out in boxing, who was the boxer that was your favorite and would model yourself after?
When I first started, it would have to be Roy Jones Jr. hands down. It was Roy. I would imitate Roy with my hands out to the point where it was not good. I wasn’t being myself (laughing). I wanted to look like him and everything. He was a great fighter with an unorthodox style. But what drew me to him at a young age was what he did outside the ring. He broke away from the mainstream promoters and started Square Ring Promotions. People said he was crazy, it would never work, but that is what draws me to guys like him. Guys who are willing to go against the grain in this sport saying “I’m not going to do it the way everybody says I’m supposed to do it. I’m going to do what’s best for me.” That’s what motivates me. I’m fortunate to have a great team and great manager in James Prince, my promoters Antonio Leonard and Dan Goosen who helps me learn this game.
Early in your career you received similar criticisms like Roy Jones with the level of opposition you were facing, he proved he did it the right way and so did you. What’s your thought on that?
Anybody can be manufactured to a title. I didn’t want to be manufactured to a title. There have been many guys who won titles, and then they lose it the next fight. I wanted to be ready and fight the best, and we fought the best. He was the guy who was at the top for a long time. His only loss was to another great that is Joe Calzaghe, then came back to recapture the title. So we wanted to be ready for these kinds of moments and we were ready. And I believe we are ready to keep it for a long long time. You have to have a solid plan, and you have to stick to it.
In becoming the WBA Super Middleweight Champion, you beat a legitimate champion. It was not for a vacant title, you fought the best and you beat him. What was that feeling like when they announced you as the winner and strapped that belt around you?
Man…I think you guys saw it when I was on camera. It was just great joy, just great joy. And a lot of pressure was lifted off my shoulders personally. It was a great feeling looking back at camp knowing we were on the right track. All the hard work is beginning to pay off. It was an honor to fight Kessler. He’s a great champion. That guy is the real deal. My style is just not for him in the ring. But to get a victory with a name like that on the resume is an honor. It gives you the confident to get to the next level. They say “once a guy wins a title, he gets 30-40% better”. And to beat a guy like that, it REALLY makes you better. You get the feeling “I beat this guy! I’m ready to be champion for a long time!”
Your style is different from others. You’re fast, you’re explosive, you even switch from southpaw to conventional stance during a fight. Edison Miranda had trouble fighting you. Mikkel Kessler had trouble fighting you. And these are world class fighters. How do you do it?
A lot of hard work! I’ve been training since I was 9 years old. And I’ve been at this particular craft for a long time. As you keep progressing just like in any other profession, the more you do it, the better you get. I’m evolving and becoming a master at my sport. I must say though, I must be one of the most underestimated fighters in the game. Even going back to my amateur days, guys look at me from across and see one thing, they get in there and see something totally different. Miranda came up to me after the fight and said “man…I thought it was going to be much easier than what it was”. Critics can’t classify my style. They label me as “speedy”. They don’t realize the physical strength that I have. They don’t realize the things that go on in the ring, fighters included. And by the time they figured it out, it’s too late.
There are so many fighters out there that have a big name from a lot of talking and hyping themselves up. You don’t do any talking. You keep to yourself and do the talking in the ring. What are your thoughts on fighters that talk themselves up?
If you know you’re good, you don’t have to tell the world you’re good. 8 weeks from now you have the opportunity to show it. I understand where my strength comes from, so there’s no room for boasting there. There’s so much of that. I want to be something different in this sport. Boxing is the sport I love. It’s a sport I dedicated over half of my life into. I want to bring some respect to this sport. And my message is “You can be a combat sport fighter, you can be competitive like I am in the ring, but you can also carry yourself with class. You can also have integrity. You can also be well spoken.” I want to be conscious of the fact that I do have a platform and that I have many adults watching me, but I also have a lot of young kids watching me. And I want them to know it’s not ok to disrespect their teammates, it’s not ok to disrespect a sports official. So if I’m going to tell them it’s not ok, let’s show them it’s not ok to do. I’m not perfect, but I’m striving to do things the right way.
Going back to your amateur days in winning the Olympic Gold Medal. Not too many people realize how difficult it is to win an Olympic Gold Medal in boxing. It is definitely an extraordinary feat. How did you feel when you received the gold medal?
Surreal. Even today. I’m going to be honest, it still feels surreal. Even watching the Winter Olympics that are going on now, it is hard to believe that I won the gold medal. Not that I didn’t believe that I could, it’s just amazing to say “man….I have an Olympic gold medal. And not only do I have it, but I won it!” It is just an unbelievable feeling. Unbelievable.
This is a difficult question, there’s a difference, but which is a better feeling? Winning the Olympic Gold Medal? Or winning the world title?
Much difference. And don’t get me wrong, that belt is something that I trained for a very long time. But I just don’t think no matter how many world titles I win will surpass winning the Olympic Gold Medal. To be able to stand up there and hear the national anthem being played, and to be the last man standing in my weight class holding up the American flag is a memory that has been etched into my heart for life. There will never be anything like it. Fighting, competing, and winning the Olympic Gold Medal.
Finally, with so many professional athletes out there, you are one of the few that is a positive role model to the younger community. What is your message to these kids to stay focus and stay on the right track in life?
There are tons of temptations out there. From one thing to the next. And I just want to encourage these guys and let them know, life is a fight. And that’s what I realize as a family man, a public sports figure. Life is a fight! So what are you going to fight for? Are you going to fight what’s right? Or are you going to fight for what’s wrong? It’s easy to fight for something negative. It’s easy to run with the crowd. It’s easy to do what everybody else is doing, but it takes courage to say “No! I’m going to fight for what’s right. I’m going to class on time. I’m not going to cut. No! I’m not going to smoke!” It takes courage to do that. I want to encourage these kids and even these young adults to be willing to stand up and do what’s right. And if you’re going to fight, fight for the right cause in life! That’s real courage. That’s real strength. Because it is not easy to do.
by Andrew Moy/Edge Brown
photography by Daniel Nolan/Jeff Spirer